Loveland Pass, Colorado, on US Route 6 summits at 11,991 feet. That’s where I’m headed, having decided to skip the congestion at the Eisenhower Tunnel. Going up a steep grade is never as bad as going down, though negotiating thirty-five tons of tractor-trailer around the hairpin turns is a bit of a challenge. I have to use both lanes to keep my 53-foot trailer clear of the ditches on the right side and hope nobody coming down is sending a text or sightseeing.
At the top of the pass, high up in my Freightliner Columbia tractor pulling a spanking-new, fully loaded custom moving van, I reckon I can say I’m at an even 12,000 feet. When I look down, the world disappears into a miasma of fog and wind and snow, even though it’s July. The road signs are clear enough, though— the first one says Runaway truck ramp 1.5 miles. Next one: Speed limit 35 mph for vehicles with gross weight over 26,000 lbs. Next one: Are your brakes cool and adjusted? Next one: All commercial vehicles are required to carry chains September 1—May 31. I run through the checklist in my mind. Let’s see: 1.5 miles to the runaway ramp is too far to do me any good if the worst happens, and 35 miles per hour sounds really fast. My brakes are cool, but adjusted? I hope so, but no mechanic signs off on brake adjustments in these litigious days. Chains? I have chains in my equipment compartment, required or not, but they won’t save my life sitting where they are. Besides, I figure the bad weather will last for only the first thousand feet. The practical aspects of putting on chains in a snowstorm, with no pullover spot, in pitch dark, at 12,000 feet, in a gale, and wearing only a T-shirt, is a prospect Dante never considered in enumerating his circles of hell. The other option is to keep rolling—maybe I’ll be crushed by my truck at the bottom of a scree field, maybe I won’t. I roll.
I can feel the sweat running down my arms, can feel my hands shaking, can taste the bile rising in my throat from the greasy burger I ate at the Idaho Springs Carl’s Jr. (It was the only place with truck parking.) I’ve got 8.6 miles of 6.7 percent downhill grade ahead of me that has taken more trucks and lives than I care to think about. The road surface is a mix of rain, slush, and (probably) ice. I’m one blown air hose away from oblivion, but I’m not ready to peg out in a ball of flame or take out a family in a four-wheeler coming to the Rocky Mountains to see the sights.
I downshift my thirteen-speed transmission to fifth gear, slow to 23 mph, and set my Jake brake to all eight cylinders. A Jake brake is an air-compression inhibitor that turns my engine into the primary braking system. It sounds like a machine gun beneath my feet as it works to keep 70,000 pounds of steel and rubber under control. I watch the tachometer, which tells me my engine speed, and when it redlines at 2,200 rpm I’m at 28 mph. I brush the brakes to bring her back down to 23. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen now. My tender touch might cause the heavy trailer to slide away and I’ll be able to read the logo in reverse legend from my mirrors. It’s called a jackknife. Once it starts, you can’t stop it. In a jackknife the trailer comes all the way around, takes both lanes, and crushes against the cab until the whole thing comes to a crashing stop at the bottom of the abyss or against the granite side of the Rockies.
It doesn’t happen, this time, but the weather’s getting worse.
RTWT ON THE LONG HAUL @ A High-End Mover Dishes on Truckstop Hierarchy, Rich People, and Moby Dick